Navigating Your Undergraduate or Masters Topic Choice

Contents

Embarking on an impactful research career, starting with your thesis

We’ve compiled this guide to share the tools and frameworks we think will be most helpful to you if you’re searching for a meaningful thesis topic.

About this guide

We recommend this guide if you are an undergraduate or master’s student. In the first part of this guide we will explore how your values could shape your research career, why ‘following your passion’ and specialising early might be misguided or incomplete advice, and how your thesis could help you explore and prepare for the paths you might take in the future. In the second half we will help you find inspiration for thesis topics, and introduce a framework to help you choose between options and narrow your options down to a specific research question. Finally, we will help you identify concrete next steps for your thesis journey.

How to use this guide

We recommend completing this guide over multiple sittings, e.g. working through one section per week. However, please adjust the pace to suit your circumstances. We think you will get most out of this guide if you start from the beginning, but you might want to skip some sections if you have thought about the content deeply already.

After reading the articles linked in each step, take some time to answer the prompts listed. We find that writing down thoughts on paper is a step that people often want to skip, but it can help tremendously in getting clarity for yourself.

Craft your own version of success

We believe that everyone should craft their own version of what success looks like to them. What matters to you? What would your ideal career look like? Research shows that popular advice like ‘follow your passion’ is often unhelpful, because passions can change and it can be hard to recognise them purely through introspection. We recommend you read this article to understand why systematic approaches to career decisions are probably more useful, and why helping others with your career will help you experience your job as more meaningful.

Reflect on your values and moral beliefs

Understanding your values and moral beliefs is an ongoing endeavour and you don’t need to have it figured out before choosing your topic. However, we do encourage reflection on this, as this might significantly shift your motivation to work on some problems over others and if this happens, the earlier you make this shift the better.  What do we mean when we say doing good? Most people agree that they want to ‘do good’ with their lives. However, it is worth reflecting on what this actually means to you. We recommend reading the article linked above to learn more about impartiality, the moral circle and uncertainty. This will help you to get a better understanding of what sort of thesis topics would align with your values and what kind of problems you want to contribute to solving with your research.

Reflect on your values and moral beliefs

This flowchart from the Global Priorities Project can help you to navigate through this cause prioritisation process.

Here are two further resources that could help you with this reflection:

Take time to experiment

If you are reading this guide you are probably uncertain about what to focus on in your career and have not yet specialised strongly in any particular topic. It is also completely normal to not know what your main interest is or what you want to specialise in yet, if at all. This can be overwhelming in a time where we can literally choose from millions of options and have an incredible amount of freedom. When you are just starting out (as an undergraduate student especially), we think it might be best to focus on experimenting and ‘failing fast’ – taking opportunities for small experiments to see what is a good fit for you. 

While being an undergraduate student, your past consists of little time and relatively few experiences in a narrow range of contexts, at least in relation to work experience. This means you are relatively ill-equipped to make long-term plans for your future. We think this is the perfect opportunity to take an experimental approach to your life – see your university holidays as a chance to conduct a series of mini experiments and wide ‘sampling’ of different experiences (also try non-research experiences) that will help you get a better understanding of yourself, what you like to do and what you are good at. What’s more, trying out different areas can help you to build an unusual combination of skills or knowledge which can give you a competitive advantage over someone who only focuses on one area. Do not be afraid to pivot away from something you initially thought would work out great for you, just acknowledge this as a disproved hypothesis and incorporate what you’ve learned into your best guess about what would be a great career for you. By doing this you can build a fulfilling career step by step, making active and informed decisions on the way, continually incorporating new knowledge and experiences about yourself on the way. 

  • See this article for more info on how to test your fit for a research career. Research internships and other short term research positions are a great way to learn more about yourself – see our opportunities board to find those. 
  • Your thesis is a great way to experiment – keep reading to learn why.

You can use your thesis to

  • Learn more about a certain research area or topic
  • Learn new skills, including transferable skills such as asking (action-)relevant questions, building a theory of change or writing with exceptional reasoning transparency
  • Gain experience with a certain research methodology
  • Test your fit for research – feedback about your thesis might give you useful information about your strengths and weaknesses in research, how much you enjoy the experience and whether this could ultimately be a career you are interested in
  • Build career capital, e.g. publish a paper based on your thesis research
  • Build connections with collaborators, e.g. join a great lab, find an excellent supervisor (if you have the choice) – opportunity for seeking out good mentorship 
  • Contribute meaningfully to an area of research, i.e. have a direct impact – building a Theory of Change helps with this

Reflection prompts

  • What beliefs inform your current level of confidence about whether you should pursue a research career? How can you test these beliefs? (e.g. producing research and getting feedback, write and submit a paper to a journal, take part in summer research fellowships/ internships)
  • Obtaining maximum information value – Which topics would provide you with valuable information about your strengths or which methodologies you enjoy using? What are uncertainties you have about the world and how can you go about eliminating those uncertainties? 
  • What are your ‘motivated skills’? (i.e. those strengths that you most enjoy using and would like to use in the future)

Inspiration and ideation phase

Get inspired

Now it is time to get inspired! This article explains how research can change the world, and this is a comprehensive profile about a career in academic research. Next, have a look at our list of potential thesis topics to get inspired about a range of different particularly impactful research areas. See how different study disciplines can contribute to each of these topics with our example research questions that were recommended by our experts. We recommend you read the 3-5 profiles that interest you most in depth. Alternatively, if you have no timing constraints, you can sign up to our Digest to receive biweekly inspiration emails into your inbox.

See here if you want to learn more about how we go about writing our thesis topics profiles and why we prioritise these topics.

Note: Because we try to feature problems that are particularly important, tractable, and neglected, you might see some problems listed on our site that it’s uncommon to see described as global problems, while others are not featured. As an example, in our ‘human health and wellbeing’ category we list ‘anti-aging research’ but not ‘cancer research.’ We think research on widely recognised problems such as cancer is highly important. However, because so many more researchers are already working on these problems, we think that – all else equal – you will probably have a bigger impact working on problems that are relatively neglected. 

Generate ideas

After reading a few of our recommended profile areas, we recommend that you start a simple brainstorming document (both to help you keep track of and develop your ideas and to make it easier for others to give feedback later). For example, this document could be an ongoing list of research questions that you collect along the way of your idea generation phase, grouped into overarching topics or research fields. Collect at least 20 brief research question ideas (they can be vague at first) and then add some context, e.g. relevant papers and researchers. In addition to trying to identify some questions on your own through a literature review, reach out to your supervisor or other researchers in the field(s) that interest you and ask what they think some of the most important open questions are. You could also contact some of the organisations listed on a research direction profile you’re interested in and ask if there are research projects you could undertake that would be decision-relevant for them. Reaching out to others at this stage can also help to discard unfeasible ideas early on, before you would invest too much time into them.

Exercise: creating a brainstorming document

Here’s a template you can use to create a brainstorming document.

Some tools that might be useful for this stage of your project ideation phase:

  • Connected papers – explore connections between research papers in a visual graph
  • Elicit – the AI research assistant to help you automate research workflows, like parts of literature review.
  • More resources and tools for research are linked here.

Prioritising what is most important to you

Compare options

If you believe you have collected enough research questions in your brainstorming document from the previous step, you can now start comparing these questions. In order to do so, we think it would be helpful to write down the factors that are most important to you in making a decision about your thesis topic – examples could be (adapted from this post):

  • Importance  – How large in scale and/or severity is the problem your question would address? 
  • Tractability – How realistic is it that you would make progress? Is your research question concrete and manageable, and do you have a clear strategy to tackle it?
  • Neglectedness – How likely does it seem that others won’t work independently on this question if you don’t?
  • Actionability – Does this research have a clear audience and can inform action? Will this project generate genuinely new findings/data that are useful from some relevant point of view? Will this project help to translate/communicate important ideas that need a signal boost?
    • Some students at undergraduate or masters level have written theses in collaboration with organisations that find direct relevance for the research the student produced. Read this article to find out more about how to share your research beyond academia. 
  • Learning value – Will you learn useful things from working on it? Will this project help you build valuable research skills? Will this project help with building your model of how something important works? Will this project help you refine a nebulous sense of confusion/uncertainty/curiosity into a crisp, important question?
  • Exploration value: Will this project help me decide what to do next? 
  • Personal fit & situational fit – Does your personal background bring value for the question? Is the topic coherent with your study programme? Are you in or can you find supportive conditions for this research question, e.g. excellent mentorship?
  • Credentials and career capital – Will the output signal your research competence? e.g. if you could get a reference from a particularly prestigious researcher for one of your thesis ideas, this might be an important consideration. Will the project reflect well on you, and is it shareable with others (or could it be developed into something shareable/ a publication)? Will the project allow you to interface/build relationships with people whom it will be helpful to know going forward? 
  • Intrinsic motivation  – Are you excited about working on this project?
 

We recommend that you take some time to browse through these short descriptions of core concepts, particularly ‘career capital’, ‘comparative advantage’ and ‘marginal impact’. Perhaps note down a few takeaways that apply to your decision.

Exercise: sketch brief theories of change for your research questions

Once you’ve considered which of these factors matter to you, take a few minutes to sketch a theory of change for each research question you’re considering. 

A theory of change is a step by step plan of how you hope to achieve a positive impact with your research, starting with the context you’d be working in, the research outputs you would plan to produce, and the short- and long-term impacts you would hope to achieve with your research. Sketching some theories of change will help you set out your current thinking of how your research ideas could have a positive impact, giving you something to get feedback on in the next step below.

Consider whether your research could have negative outcomes too

When you’re considering the value of working on a particular research problem, it may also be important to remember that research isn’t a monolithic force for good – research has done a lot of good but there are many examples of it doing a lot of harm as well. There is a long history of research being biassed by the discriminatory beliefs and blindspots of its time, as well as being used to justify cruelty and oppression. Research has made warfare more deadly and has facilitated the development of intensive factory farming. Dual-use biotechnology research is intended to help humanity, but could, for example, cause a catastrophic pandemic in the event of a lab accident or if the technology was misused. While some researchers are trying to increase the chance that future artificial intelligence is safe for humanity, many more researchers are focused on making AI more powerful. 

While it isn’t realistic for researchers to foresee every way their research could be (mis)used, many researchers are trying to create frameworks for thinking about how research can do harm and how to avoid this. For example, if you’re interested in working on biosecurity or AI safety, you could explore concepts such as differential progress and info hazards. If you’re working on global health questions it may be important to educate yourself about the concept of parachute science.

Reach out to others for feedback

At this point, we think it could be helpful to identify some experts who might be interested in talking about these questions, and then reach out for feedback. Getting feedback might allow you to prioritise between the questions, develop your methodology further or discard projects before investing too much effort in them. You could seek feedback via two strategies: sending the document to people asking for general comments and seeking out people you know work on some particular ideas related to yours and asking for their feedback on specific ideas. 

Here are some ways of connecting with other researchers:

  • Reach out to your existing connections.
  • Attend research conferences related to your field of interest and speak to relevant people there, e.g. EAGs could be a great place to reach out to people for feedback on research ideas in directions that we recommend.
  • Are there any local student or reading groups in your area that focus on a research area that you are planning to work on? 
  • Public Slack channels on your research area, e.g. List of EA Slack workspaces.

When preparing to reach out to experts, keep these key points in mind, if possible:

  • Give the expert relevant information about yourself (What is your background? What is the scope of the project you’re planning to work on? What are possible limitations regarding methodology/topic, if any?).
  • Researchers are generally more willing to talk to you if you have actually read some of their research and can comment on it.
  • If it is not clear from your questions, describe why they would be highly suited to help you.
  • Prepare an agenda (potentially send it to them before but they might not have the time to read it beforehand).
  • Think about what your key uncertainties actually are and what kind of feedback you want from them – Would you like their overall reaction? Detailed comments?
  • Consider having a brainstorming document ready to share with them.
  • You might want to have a look at this and this for more information about how to prepare.

              Exercise: creating a weighted-factor model

              Coming up with concrete factors, e.g. the factors above, by which to judge your thesis options will help you to reflect on what is important to you. Next, think about how much each factor weighs into your decision, i.e. how you prioritise between those factors. Lastly, try to evaluate the most promising research questions on each factor.  The outcome of this ranking can serve as an orientation for your decision making and can help crystallise your intuition about which questions would be the best fit for your dissertation. Here is an example of an attempt to rank the questions via such a weighted-factor model (WFM).

              Refining your research question

              Once you have settled on a general research area and even a question, it is time to develop a well-scoped and viable research proposal. The purpose of the proposal is to identify a relevant research topic, explain the context of the research, define concrete goals, and propose a realistic work plan to achieve them. We recommend building a Theory of Change for your research to help with this. At this point, reach out to your supervisor or other relevant people in the field of your research interests to ask for feedback. This will help you devise and develop an appropriate methodology. 

              Note: Most students do not have the freedom to develop their own research proposal during their undergraduate studies – if you want to do something specific and want to convince a researcher to become your supervisor and give you resources for experiments, then a research proposal could be very helpful.

              • First, make sure you have a detailed model of the problem you are planning to address in your research. E.g. Who are the different actors involved? How can research help fill information gaps? What are particularly neglected approaches and interventions for this problem?
              • You will only be able to make a valuable research contribution if your project is focused. Break down goals to discrete tasks and summarise what you are actually going to do. This will help you estimate how much work is involved in every step and to evaluate what is feasible in the time frame you have available.
              • Consider practical questions – What kind of facilities do you have? Will your research fulfil your course or university requirements?
              • Based on any feedback you received, update your ideas and figure out your key uncertainties, then seek feedback again on the more refined set of ideas, e.g. 2-5 different ideas for concrete research questions with more detail.

              Note: Due to issues related to data availability, methodology, and any other unexpected circumstances, students often have to make significant alterations on their research topic during the initial phase. Trying to anticipate any obstacles or challenges that may arise during the project will help you to minimise this problem:

              • Consult with your supervisor and other researchers early on to help you anticipate challenges you might not have considered.
              • Think about data availability and feasibility. Before settling on a specific research topic, evaluate the availability and accessibility of data required for your study. Make sure you have access to the necessary resources to avoid potential roadblocks later.
              • Have a backup plan. While you should be focused on your primary research approach, it’s helpful to have backup plans or alternative methodologies in mind. If you encounter data limitations or other issues, having a contingency plan can save time and effort.

              Find a standout advisor

              We think it is very important to find someone who genuinely cares about your research question and who will make a lot of time to supervise you well. Further, your supervisor will influence how effective you are in your work and how much you will enjoy the research, as they will be the primary person guiding you throughout your whole research process. So, if you can choose your supervisor for your thesis (at some universities someone might be allocated to you), here are some green flags to look out for:

              • They care about your research question (pitch your ideas to the supervisor and see how excited they are about this).
              • They truly care about mentoring you well (ask questions about their mentoring style, get a feel for how you match as a person).
              • Their previous and current students are satisfied with them as a supervisor (arrange a meeting with at least one current or past student).
              • They are successful (e.g. citation count and general prestige).

              Set out your next steps

              Take a few minutes now to write down your next steps.

              It could be helpful to sign up to some accountability buddy schemes, ask friends to check on your progress, or set yourself a hard deadline on some important next steps that you want to take. You could schedule some time in your calendar right now, or make a note in your To-Do list about a task that you want to complete soon.

              Reflection prompts

              • What information do you need to get right now?
              • What are you uncertain about? 
              • What keeps you from advancing with your project and how, concretely, could you go about to resolve this?

              Examples for concrete next steps could be:

              • Reach out to people for feedback on your brainstorming document
              • Reach out to potential supervisors
              • Apply to an EAG conference and make a list of people you want to speak to

              Here are some further resources that could be helpful for you:


              For more general career advice and post thesis career coaching, there are some organisations that could help you with 1:1 advising. We recommend:

              • 80,000 hours offers one-off 1:1 advising calls about using your career to help solve one of the world’s most pressing problems. They can help you choose your focus, make connections, and find a fulfilling job to tackle important problems.
              • Magnify Mentoring pairs mentees who are interested in pursuing high-impact careers with more experienced mentors for a series of one-on-one meetings.
              • Probably Good is running 1:1 advising calls to brainstorm career paths, evaluate options, plan next steps, and to connect you with relevant people and opportunities.

              Lastly, please leave us some feedback. Thank you! 

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